Why Do We Play Games? Part 3: Story

When was the last time a film made you cry? Even this embittered blogger can admit to a few tear-inducing moments in his film-watching past, the ending to Casablanca being one. Now when was the last time a video game made you cry? I’m guessing quite a few of you will answer ‘never’, and I for one can’t recall any times when I’ve broken down into helpless tears in front of my Xbox. I’ll admit I’ve come close a few times though: the ending to the 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia certainly brought a lump to my throat, and the BioShock 2 DLC Minerva’s Den had a denouement that packed an emotional punch (see this article for my thoughts on both).

Games have a reputation in the mainstream media for being violent and one-dimensional, and there are certainly enough violent, one-dimensional games out there to see where people can get this impression, but that’s by no means the whole story. Games are growing up. Partly that’s the result of designers pandering to an ageing gamer population – people like me who’ve been playing games since the 8-bit days and now want something a bit more mature – but it’s also down to advances in technology that allow more realistic graphics and speech. The realistic characters of today’s games are light years from the cartoon characters of the cartridge days, and realistic characters need realistic stories to go with them.

Back in the Golden Age of gaming, if you’d told your friends that you were going to buy a new NES game because of the story, they’d probably have backed away from you slowly while shaking their heads and twirling their fingers around their ears. Games used to be all about the challenge rather than the plot, which for the most part was almost incidental to the action. There were exceptions of course – throughout the eighties, text adventures ploughed a lonely, story-driven furrow from which emerged the seed of point and click adventure games, and perhaps these could be regarded as the most ‘pure’ story-led games around. But for most games, a couple of pages of scrolling text at the beginning and end was just about as much story as you were likely to get, and even that was prone to have spelling errors as a result of being translated from Japanese. Nowadays though, the story of the game is perhaps just as important as the challenge it provides, and when talking to a friend about a game, I’m more likely to ask “What did you think of the ending?” than “What was your high score?” In fact, I may even buy a game on the strength of its story alone.

The importance of the story to modern games can be seen in the way that big name writers such as Alex Garland (Enslaved) are getting involved in writing video game plots, and also in the way that famous actors like Liam Neeson (Fallout 3) are being drafted in to add life to the characters. A common complaint of video game writers is that they’re often brought in too late to make a meaningful difference to the game in progress, but I’ve no doubt that this will change in the future – I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that games didn’t have writers at all. Times they are a changing, and story is increasingly being placed at the forefront of designers’ and buyers’ minds alike, but this change is a slow process.

The story for Spec Ops: The Line raises some difficult questions.

Take Spec Ops: The Line for example. Here’s an example of a recent first-person shooter that overtly sold itself on its story – a reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – rather than its gameplay mechanics and graphics. In fact, the lead designer actually described the multiplayer element of the game as “tacked-on bullshit” that was added by the publisher against his wishes: he believed it would have been better as an entirely single-player experience to better emphasise the storytelling. Spec Ops shows that not only are designers becoming more interested in storytelling, but also that they’re struggling against the inertia of what the industry perceives should constitute a video game. However, the fact that such an ambitious, story-driven game got made in the first place shows that there’s a desire for change.

The games industry is in an odd position right now when it comes to storytelling. We’ve moved on from the basic plots of early games, but there seems to be a general confusion about the best way forward. Many games stick to the tried and tested method of cut scenes, which neatly divide the ‘game’ from the ‘story’. However, there’s something fundamentally unsatisfying about simply forcing players to passively sit through a video of characters spouting plot points. On the one hand, the quality of acting in cut scenes has generally got a lot better over the years as designers have poured more thought and money into them, but on the other hand, it seems almost lazy to simply copy the principles of film-making across to video games, which at their core are interactive experiences that share little in common with movies. Games like Half-Life have attempted to bridge the gap somewhat by leaving players in control of their character while non-player characters deliver their plot exposition, but even this seems a poor compromise. It’s a tricky problem to solve though – how do you tell a story while leaving the player in control?

The cut scenes with Alyx in Half-Life 2 were a step in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go.

Perhaps a better approach is to allow the player to piece together the story for themselves, to dip into the plot as much as they like or ignore it completely. Fallout 3 is an excellent showcase for how this can be achieved, as it allows players the freedom to wander the gameland as they please and discover information and stories as they go. The collectible audio tapes in BioShock are another example, as they give the player an opportunity to seek out more details about the world they’re exploring. These approaches seem much more suited than cut scenes to the medium of video games, as they emphasise discovery rather than passive consumption, but even so, it still feels like we’re in an awkward in-between stage. If the eighties and nineties were gaming’s childhood, we’re now in gaming’s adolescence, searching around for meaning and direction: learning how to tell a good story is just another one of those growing pains.

Perhaps one of the main reasons why we play games over, for example, reading a book or watching a film is that games allow us to influence their outcome. Rather than simply consuming the story, the player feels like they’re driving the story, that their actions are having an impact on the world they’re inhabiting, even if this is an illusion. The ability to say “I made that happen” is one of the most powerful attractions of video games. But balancing this freedom against telling a story is one of the most difficult challenges for developers.

This concept of player choice has exploded over the past decade, to the point where ‘linear’ is almost a dirty word among gamers. Even so, the choices we’re given are often disappointingly binary: “kill him or don’t kill him”, “take the treasure or save the girl”. Plot choices like these come across as insultingly simplistic, but this is partly due to the limitations of current computer technology, as excellently argued in this recent opinion article, “The limits of videogame interaction“. Until we can have a realistic conversation with a video game character in which we have complete freedom about what to say and how to say it, we’re always going to be confined to disappointing options like “kill him or don’t kill him”.

So perhaps in the future the whole concept of plots in video games will melt away, and instead we’ll be left to forge our own story, shaping the world we inhabit by our deeds and misdeeds. Perhaps the moment a video game makes you cry won’t be a scripted plotline, but rather it will be the time you realize you’ve accidentally (or deliberately) unleashed a heart-rending tragedy on your own gameworld, destroying the people you care about. The secret to a good story is caring about the characters who populate it, and right now video game characters are by and large little more than cardboard cut-outs. When we get to the point where we can have realistic conversations with those characters, where we begin to properly empathise with those characters, maybe that will be the time that the video game story comes into its own.

I hope you’re enjoying the series so far: I’d love to hear your own thoughts on how storytelling in games can be improved, or examples of when it’s at its best or worst. Next time I’ll be taking a closer look at gameworlds and trying to pin down that elusive but essential component of video games: wonder.